An 11th grader, watches as his teacher solves a problem in a pre-calculus class at a high school in Santa Ana, Calif., Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013.
Tempers can flare in the national debate over public education, which sometimes feels like a winner-take-all conflict for the highest of stakes. But those with the most to lose are students. That’s the case here in Southern California, where public charter school options are showing notable promise in potentially surprising ways, yet still face political obstacles. Charters have become a beacon for innovation, even as traditional public schools are facing challenges.
One of the latest examples comes from an experiment by the University of Southern California, which wanted to get more involved in helping to improve education for local high school students in Los Angeles. The university’s Rossier School of Education linked up with the Los Angeles Unified School District, along with the Urban League, to turn around Crenshaw High School. The partnership was a long one, reaching back to 2007. But, after five years, it fell apart, bedeviled by stakeholder disagreements over campus culture and learning assessment. Disagreements like this can be complex and serious. Even severe differences of opinion and judgment, however, can be mitigated in the right institutional environment. When that kind of support and flexibility is lacking, however, the results are apt to look much like Crenshaw High’s: costs sunk, feelings hurt, failures compounded and, thus, the partnership dissolved.
Smarting from the setback, Rossier Dean Karen Symms Gallagher went back to the drawing board — informed this time by what she described to the Wall Street Journal as a “humbling and instructive” experience. What arose from the school’s fresh start was something much different than the typical union partnership: a charter school network called Ednovate, which is now ready to open nearly half of its schools in Los Angeles this fall.
With Gallagher as chair and the USC involvement extended to all of the charters, the move is a powerful and unexpected testament to the potential of charter schools to deliver results that even dedicated educators and scholars struggle to attain in traditional public schools.
As of yet, there’s no effort afoot to try to scuttle the program. USC isn’t directly running the schools, instead opting to keep open a $1 million line of credit, as campuses fill up with enrollees. But, for Gallagher, the opportunities afforded by the charter model obviate the need for heavier interventions.
“Going into an existing school and trying to make changes is very difficult to do,” she said. “For the kind of innovative approach that we wanted to do,” she told the Journal, “the charter was the way to go.”
When the chips were down and the quality of students’ learning and opportunity hung in the balance, USC’s education scholars reached for the best available tool to try something new without flying blind. Their direct personal experience with a traditional public school district led them to the charter school model.
One case study is not dispositive, but when it comes to charters, a host of examples underscore the reality that USC’s scholars discovered on their own. Their experience is now helping to show that good charters offer a reliable, trustworthy middle path. The upshot for the state and national arguments over school reform, accountability and innovation should be clear.
Innovative partnerships are very common for public charter schools, compared to their traditional public school counterparts. For example, Magnolia Public Schools, which operates 10 schools in Southern California, has a groundbreaking STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics) program, and has partnered with Mt. Wilson Observatory, whose scientists help develop STEAM coursework aligned to the state’s new science standards.
“What better way to get kids excited about science than to put them in the room where Einstein, Hale and Hubble conducted groundbreaking research? Once we saw the opportunity to partner with a leading science institution, we jumped on it,” Caprice Young, CEO of Magnolia Public Schools and former president of the LAUSD Board of Education, told us.
“As a charter, we have the flexibility to be nimble and innovate in a way that district schools too often do not.”
Similarly, another charter school organization, Partnerships to Uplift Communities, which operates 16 schools in low-income Latino communities, has a partnership with Loyola Marymount University. It has an incredibly innovative program that encourages its graduates to come back and teach at their former charter schools after they graduate from college.
“We want students to go out into the world and achieve incredible things, but we also want them to reinvest in their communities. The residency program is one of the most exciting aspects of our work, because it empowers graduates to do both: They learn to be teachers — the most important profession there is — as they give back to their communities,” according to Jacqueline Elliot, co-founder of PUC schools.
Despite the great work done to transform and improve public education, political forces still attempt to demonize and attack public charter schools, even with all of their popularity and successes. In one discouraging development, the teachers unions — the California Teachers Association, California Federation of Teachers and United Teachers Los Angeles — banded together to oppose the creation of the state’s first STEM school, a proposal put forward in Sacramento by state Assemblyman Raul Bocanegra, D-San Fernando, and Sen. Anthony Portantino, D-La Cañada.
And, earlier this summer, union pressure so badly weakened a bill to reform tenure rules, introduced by Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, that Weber pulled the legislation entirely.
Perhaps most unfortunate, however, is a rapidly rising chorus of political voices floating the idea of running a ballot initiative that would outright ban charter schools in California.
While the challenges at the state level are apparent, it’s important not to minimize the significance of federal policy and Beltway politics on the future of education reform. Nevertheless, to veterans of the education battles in California and nationwide, the education reform debate can become a form of trench warfare, where relatively meager wins and losses gain outsized importance in a grueling game of inches. Symbolic victories fuel cycles of fundraising, base mobilization and negative campaigns. Insider tactics and regulatory manipulation prevent popular shake-ups before they have a chance to take hold.
But, to the students whose lives are actually transformed by simple, yet powerful, breakthroughs in the way they learn, both together and individually, these machinations are no game. For them, progress isn’t measured in tit-for-tat squabbles, but rather in giant steps toward brighter futures. Theirs are the highest of stakes, and the ones that ought to carry the greatest weight.
California was once at the forefront of education reform. In 1992, it became the second state in the nation to grant charter schools the authority to operate. Today, there are over 1,200 charters in the state, teaching a total of over 600,000 of California’s roughly 6 million students in grades K-12. Although national policy debates will always be with us, and people of good character will always find grounds for principled disagreement, it’s important to see what happens when we recenter our education perspective around the real gains being made in the tough instructional environments next door.
Charters aren’t a cudgel with which to beat partisan foes, or a convenient catchphrase to freshen up old agendas. They’re institutions that can swiftly and nimbly serve students who need help the most.